Once upon a time, Labor Day meant the end of summer and the beginning of the school year. That, I believe, is what the Almighty intended. Of course, with schools today starting at the beginning of August and summer not really over until the end of September, Labor Day is fast becoming just another holiday without meaning or purpose.
Perhaps it would be wise for educators to spend a few hours sharing with students the plight of the American worker at the beginning of the Industrial Age. We are horrified at the “sweat shops” we read about, but this was the common practice in this country for many years. By the late 1880s, conditions were so poor that workers, backed by the then necessary Labor Unions, staged revolts and strikes, one of which led to a clash between federal troops and protesters. Attempting to reconcile with the workers, Congress made Labor Day a national observation of the contribution of America’s working class (History.com).
In the last several years I have had numerous conversations with colleagues regarding the current push to send every student to college. I suspect this may be partly in reaction to the continuing struggle between politicians, educators, and unions. The student voice seems to get lost in the debate. There are students who are not college bound and who should not be pushed that direction. There are some for whom vocational education is more important and more practical than college-readiness. Reasons vary by circumstance, but may include career goals in areas that do not require a college degree, a family business, or a distaste for school in general and a willingness to work up from the lowest position. Coming from a working class family myself, I see a need for a resurgence in vocational education.
Living in the suburbs, my position is not popular. The mindset of that particular demographic is that value only comes with a college education. This thinking is wrong, and must be addressed both in the classroom and in society. In an article published on Edutopia and reprinted in the Washington Post, Mark Phillips wrote,
“We live in a society that places a high value on the professions and white-collar jobs, and that still considers blue-collar work lower status. It’s no surprise that parents want their children to pursue careers that will maintain or increase their status. This is even more evident in high socio-economic communities. And for most teachers, if the student is academically successful, this will be seen as a ‘waste of talent’ ” (Phillips, 2012).
I could not agree more.
How may students feel stigmatized because they prefer working with their hands to sitting in classrooms? How many homeowners would be completely lost without well-trained electricians or plumbers? And why do we assume that mechanics are not well-read or welders cannot write? I know a certain truck driver who writes beautiful poetry without an advanced degree. Artistry is hard to teach, but the best nail technicians and hairdressers are skilled artisans. Why must our culture belittle these choices? I was horrified to hear of a former student who chose to pursue work as a dental hygienist and was told by a school administrator that she was aiming too low. What that administrator refused to see was the passion this young lady had for improving people’s smiles and how she planned to take her skills to under-developed countries where she could help people in a tangible way. If students have dreams of practical work, then we, as educators, must both prepare them for that work and encourage them to follow their hearts no matter what the culture around them says.
This is where vocational education comes in. If students are afforded a choice between practical academics and apprenticeships or college preparatory work, they can better prepare for the futures they choose. Just because we as educators believe that higher education must be accessible to all does not imply that we should mandate it for everyone. If education is truly about the students, then they must be given the tools and the choices to dictate their own futures. All students must become literate in language arts, practical mathematics, history, and science, there is no question of that. Those skill can readily be addressed by tenth grade. Advanced studies in vocation or academics can them specialize in the fields that profit the student most.
We as educators must lead the way to de-stigmatizing vocational education. College is not for everyone; nor is vocational education. Both ensure students have goals and the tools to achieve them according to their individual skills, talents, and desires. It is time to elevate vocational education as an equally viable option to college preparation. Then we can focus on teaching students to learn for the love of learning alone, rather than crushing them all under a load of school work some neither want nor need. In becoming adaptable to student needs, we become better teachers, focused on students and whom they will become in time.
History.com Staff (2010). Labor Day. A&E Entertainment. [Weblog] Retrieved from http://www.history.com/topics/holidays/labor-day.
Phillips, M. (2012, May 29). Why should we care about vocational education? Edutopia. [Weblog]. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/vocational-education-benefits-mark-phillips.